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communication:internet

Internet for nomads

The internet is a lifeline for 'dwellers but it not always available in the ways it is for sedentary folk. There are several challenges:

  1. intermittency - the nomad will sometimes be completely out of range of internet access. i.e. no wifi or mobile data available.
  2. limited bandwidth - there is internet access but it is dodgy or very congested, as in an RV park or when shooting long distances to an open wifi access. Or getting 1 bar on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere.
  3. security - know what is safe and what is not
  4. expense - mobile data is $$$ compared to residential broadband

Reducing consumption

A megabyte saved is a megabyte earned.

See Bandwidth conservation


Satellite Internet

This is the holy grail of long-term van life, especially for those who prefer wilderness and remote areas. Historically Satellite internet services have been plagued by very high prices for minuscule data usage, and unrealistically bulky equipment (think DirectTV dishes). However with the advent of Starlink this is changing: https://www.starlink.com/rv

Starlink is the satellite internet service offered by Space-X, and offers a tier of service specifically for RVs. $135/mo (and a $600 receiver) gets you extremely fast unlimited internet in most places in the country.

The catch is that Starlink only works in remote areas. If you have a cell phone signal, you're probably not far away enough from civilization to get Starlink. Out west this is usually not a problem, but east of the Mississippi river there is usually too much population density for the service to be usable. See the coverage map here: https://www.starlink.com/map

The receiver1) is also fairly large (about the size of a pizza box) and takes a lot of power (50-100w continuous draw). It's a portable solution, but not a mobile solution. The receiver isn't designed for the sort of vibration and forces imparted when driving, so the majority of Starlink users keep the dish inside the van with them and only deploy it when they're stopped somewhere for an extended period of time. See one user's experience here: https://www.tuckstruck.net/truck-and-kit/geekery/starlink-for-overlanders/

When using Starlink on the RV plan, your traffic is de-prioritized over users who have a fixed address in the area and you may experience slower speeds.

The Starlink dish is powered from the included router, or a PoE injector which runs off of AC wall power. Experiments with powering the injector directly off of 12v DC using a Buck/Boost converter have yielded net power savings of ~30%.


Cellular data

Mobile (or “cell” data) is the internet access provided by mobile telecomm/cellular networks. This is always going to be a monthly fee.

There are two components of this equation; Who the carrier is, and what hardware you're using to connect.

Carriers

  • Verizon dominates the RV/vandweller market because it has the most coverage, including out-of-the-way places. This makes it the most popular carrier among nomads and boondockers. Verizon is infamous for being expensive and for doing jerky things like limiting built-in features on their phones. It can be a bit of a love-hate relationship 2).
  • AT&T and T-Mobile are about equal – full coverage near cities and spottier coverage in the boonies. One advantage to these carriers is that their SIM cards can be put in any unlocked GSM phone.
  • Sprint is rarely used due to minimal coverage
  • MVNOs
    • Often you can buy data at cheaper rates. Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) are resellers who buy excess capacity from major networks and sell it to customers at reduced prices. Examples: Boost (Sprint network), U.S. Mobile (Verizon network) and many others.
    • The tradeoff is that your data may be deprioritized when a particular tower gets congested. Coverage in rural areas can often be less reliable, as the economics of scale mean that there is less excess capacity for these MVNOs to buy. Your data will still work, it'll just be slower when all those folks paying full retail start streaming Netflix at 7pm or whatever. Can't put up with that? Pay full price and take your chances with congestion anyhow.

Perhaps counterintuitively, having a non-Verizon carrier can actually be desirable at RV meetups, since everyone else is likely to be hammering the Verizon towers.

Hardware

Your Cell Phone

At the simplest level, just use your cell phone. If you have a laptop, most phones offer a “hotspot” functionality where they will broadcast a (small) WiFi network that you can connect your laptop to. This works well for intermittent usage, however many cellular carriers restrict how much data you can user for this per month (Usually 10-20gb/mo for a consumer plan).

Dedicated Hotspot devices

Sometimes called “jetpacks”, these small devices are about the size of a deck of cards and effectively function as cell phones doing a perpetual hotspot (like above) but without the phone. They broadcast a small local WiFi network that you can connect your laptop, maybe phone, and a few other devices to (typically they don't support more than 5 WiFi devices connecting to them).

You buy them typically through your cellular provider, and they are billed monthly just like any other cell phone line. Usually carriers have different types of plans available for these devices, and while larger packages are available in the 100gig+ range they get very expensive.

Cellular Routers

Bigger versions of “Hotspot” devices, they offer more speed and capabilities at a higher cost. They typically have external antenna connection options, and sometimes the ability to bond multiple connection types together at once. Functionally they offer similarity to a consumer home Wi-Fi router, with the addition that you can stick a SIM card in them for internet instead of needing to plug them into your cable modem.

https://www.peplink.com\Peplink is extremely popular in the world of overlanders and cruisers (boaters). They offer good capabilities in terms of speed, features, and connectivity at a price that is more paletable to most people who are living in a van. Their Max BR1 line of cellular routers offer a reasonable blend of capacity and capabilities for the price.

Professional equipment

Cradlepoint dominates the professional end of the market. Their equipment is extremely durable, very powerful, and comes with a completely baller cloud-management interface. They also have full enterprise-grade support, which is a shell-shock for people who've never experienced what real tech support is like.

These are commonly used commercially to provide wifi or data in buses, trains, delivery vans, and are targeted to companies with hundreds of vehicles. Because of this they are a lot more expensive than consumers are accustomed to, and much more complicated to set up. They are intended to be deployed and managed by IT professionals, and to be used with roof-mounted antennas which can add complexity to a build.

If you have the budget and knowledge for it, the Cradlepoint IBR1700 is almost intentionally built for van life. It's ruggedized and designed to stand up to vehicle motion and vibration, and will run off of anything from 9-36v DC (it comes with a pigtail connector to wire into your battery system). It has a 4×4 MIMO cellular radio with the option to add a second, giving the ability to run two different SIM cards from two different providers and load-balance across them both at the same time. It also has three Wi-Fi radios (4×4 5GHz, 2×2 5GHz, and 2×2 2.4GHz), and supports a native “WiFi-as-WAN” functionality.

Unfortunately they are also very expensive, typically $1,500 for a single-radio setup and an additional $500 for the second radio. Their capabilities are unbeatable though.


WiFi

“WiFi” in this sense means connecting to the WiFi being broadcast from a traditional fixed internet connection. This could be the WiFi you find when parked outside a Taco Bell, Library, your friend's house, etc. Shore WiFi is to internet access as shore power is to electricity; cheap and plentiful. When shore wifi is available one should be prepared to take advantage of it.

Don't be a jerk

Use the resource appropriately and fairly; heavy use like streaming netflix or uploading YT vids can seriously impact the shared network. If it's a business, spend your money there. Follow the guidelines in the End User Agreement on the splash page.

Go inside wherever you can find wifi service. make sure you at least buy a drink or something so they know you are a customer. Be quiet, respectful, stay out of the way, leave if all the tables are full and there isn't room for other paying customers, etc. You can often stay for quite a long time - just be considerate of others and you'll likely never be asked to leave. – DollBabyLG3)

Connecting to WiFi

Wifi is often available in cities, but the Access Points may be too far to hit with individual devices. Solutions often include better antennas, better placement of existing antennas, or the installation of repeaters/routers.

In order from simplest/cheapest to most complex/$$$

Positioning existing equipment

WiFi works best with line-of-site, and does not pass well through metal. Relocate the device or park the vehicle so the laptop has a clear[er] view of the target. Line-of-sight through glass is better than having metal in between.

External WiFi adapters

External adapters are add-on WiFi cards that you connect to your computer (typically via USB). They are a single-device solution; they get wifi into that device, but not to any others.

The advantage of an external adapter is that they are often more powerful than the WiFi adapters that are built into laptops, and have larger (or the option to add larger) antennas. When used with a USB extension cord they can give you a lot more flexibility in making sure the receiver has good line-of-site to the access point (Such as taping the receivier to the front window while you're chilling in the back of the van out of sight).

m.media-amazon.com_images_i_21dntlvcril._ac_uy218_.jpg

  • use a usb wifi dongle that plugs in rather than the device's built-in wifi. Preferably with movable or even detachable antennas
  • completely separate usb wifi like an Alfa. These things are famous for a reason. The Alfa AWUSO36-series is famous for range and technical abilities. Having a separate USB on a cord may allow you to put the wifi receiver in a window/dash and keep the laptop inside.

External Antennas

Dongles (and routers – see below) with removable antennas are nice because you can upgrade to an antenna better suited to your uses. Common upgrades include:

  • Using the same antenna on an extension so it can be place more advantageously
  • Higher-gain (better performing) antennas
  • Directional antennas that are aimed at the donor wifi
  • In ideal situations, purpose-made antennas are mounted to the roof of the vehicle and then connected to the receiving device inside. This is the best solution, however they are expensive and require drilling yet more holes in your van.

Extenders & Repeaters

Wifi extenders/repeaters/routers work by hopping a wifi signal from some further access point. They are multiple-device solutions; all your devices will leverage the repeated wifi.

  • Extending4) takes the signal (Taco Bell Wifi, for example) and makes it available as Taco Bell Wifi in your van. The Taco Bell Wifi signal is extended beyond its original design.
    • Notes from a professional wireless network engineer: These things are terrible and should be avoided in all but the rarest of circumstances. Because they're adding a repeating station to an already large collision domain, every WiFi repeater that is connected to a network reduces the speed of the entire wireless network by 75%. Using one of these might make more bars appear on your phone, but as a result you are crapping all over the WiFi for everyone else who is connected to it.
  • Relaying5) takes the Taco Bell Wifi and replays it as MyVanWiFi or whatever in your van. While slightly more complex to set up, this is the ideal solution.
    • Relaying works by having two separate WiFi devices connected back-to-back; One WiFi device acts as the “receiver”, and connects to the host SSID (The Taco Bell WiFi). While the other WiFi device acts as your personal “transmitter” and broadcasts your local in-van network.
    • There are products out there that attempt to do this in a single device, with varying degrees of success. However by using a receiver such as a Ubiquiti Nanostation Loco as a “receiver”, and then plugged it into the WAN port whatever off-the-shelf Best Buy router you have laying around, you can accomplish this for less than $100.

images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com_images_i_31lsbv9brzl._sy90_.jpgLow-end and hobbyist units are inexpensive and can work okay, depending on your usage and technical ability.

  • the GL-300M is a small ~$25 box that can be mounted anywhere it can see out a window or windshield.
  • units with external antennas like the GL-AR300M can use better antennas, or extension wires to place antennas where they have a better view.
  • SOHO (small office home office) routers like the Linksys are widely available in thrift stores for <$5 and usually have removable/replaceable antennas; look for units that run off 12v or 5v (usb) for easiest use.

https://youtu.be/BHtcD0WUVJg

Many also remember SSIDs (access point names) and will reconnect to them as you travel. You might pull into a McDonald's parking lot and hear your phone ding: the router has already connected to the wifi and your phone 6) is asking you to click to agree to the wifi conditions.

“Pro-sumer” WiFi access points like Ubiquiti Nanostations can be configured as part of a relay system, typically when mounted outside the vehicle. This makes for maximum range but can reduce stealth. Antenna wire losses are eliminated because the antenna is inside the receiver, and the signal brought into the vehicle over ethernet7).

DIY Relays

Raspberry Pi and similar hardware can be made into DIY Relays/Routers.

Commercial options

If the hack-it-together route doesn't appeal to you, there are pre-built solutions explicitly for these situations. Cradlepoint dominates in the professional mobile internet market, and for good reason. Not only can they function as excellent WiFi relays, but they are also cellular hotspot routers as well. See the Cradlepoint cellular router section below for more.


further reading

1)
who's official name is “Dishy McFlatface”
2)
it's just hate
4)
sometimes called “repeating”
5)
sometimes called routing
6)
connected to the router's internal wifi
7)
which also powers the unit by PoE
communication/internet.txt · Last modified: 2022/05/24 01:59 by princess_fluffypants